Joe’s tech tip: tracking blogs

It didn’t escape my notice that we recommended 23 possible Twitter accounts this week, and at least 13 blogs/websites to watch. And then we told you “but you should go look for your own interests too.” I can imagine some of you might feel like

Animated gif of Sheldon Cooper throwing papers angrily

although our goal, when we showed you all this neat stuff, was that you’d feel more like

Animated gif of the M*A*S*H* cast throwing papers happily

(There’s a whole blog post about course design and “coverage” in those gifs, but not right now.)

Specifically, you might be thinking “Joe, how the heck am I ever going to track all this stuff?” Personally, my browser bookmarks are already overstuffed, I couldn’t take one more email newsletter, and I need something else to manage blogs and websites I want to keep an eye on.

Let me tell you about RSS.

RSS icon

Many websites publish a “feed” of information in a standard called RSS. That’s a pretty technical page on Wikipedia, but we don’t have to get technical – an RSS feed is kind of a computer-readable table of contents for a website. It tells you what’s been published and when. A feed might include entire articles, small teasers, or just the title. It might include media.

Sometimes, a site will use that little orange icon to let you know that an RSS feed is available, but sometimes they’re not advertised. Some big news sites publish multiple RSS feeds, so you can get both the “front page” and the various “sections” depending on what you want. (I use this on Inside Higher Ed to follow particular bloggers on that site.) Journals we get through OhioLINK publish RSS feeds (though of course they’re only updated when a new issue comes out).

Now as I said, the RSS feed is computer-readable. So as a human, you need a tool to read it for you, called an “RSS Reader.” There are lots of RSS readers out there in the world; Bryan Alexander had a good discussion about RSS reader options on his blog this spring.

I’m just going to tell you about the one I use, called Feedly. I picked Feedly, honestly, because it’s free for the first 100 feeds, it syncs between a mobile app and the web browser version, and it’s easy to set up.

So you go to Feedly, you set up an account with either a new username and password, or using your Google or Twitter credentials and… it tells you there’s nothing in your account.

Screencapture of new empty feedly account

Well, that makes sense. So you click the “Add sources” button and Feedly will suggest some popular topics you might want to explore, or give you a search box where you can add a specific site.

Adding sources to a new Feedly account

Feedly is pretty darn good at discovering RSS feeds if a website makes them available, so my normal process is to paste the base URL for the website into that search box. If the website advertises its RSS address, you can copy and paste that instead.

When you add a new RSS feed, Feedly will have you put it in a collection… which is also called a feed. (Great.) Creating a new Feedly feed

Feeds are actually one of the most powerful parts of Feedly. They work like filters in email, sending messages to particular folders so they’re organized for easy reading. For example, in my account, I’ve got feeds for webcomics, education, food and cooking, my friends who run blogs, a catchall “interesting” category, and music sites. (A site can be in more than one feed, so my friends like Autumm, who write on education, are in both collections.)

joe's feeds

That number to the side is how many unread articles are in the feed.  I might need to weed my generally “interesting” sources. Or not; I seem to be perfectly happy keeping a close eye on some categories and just browsing others.

I can look at a merged feed of everything, or pull up a particular feed. Those are also drop-down menus, so I can pop them open and check whether there’s anything new on a particular site I haven’t visited in a while.

Feedly will save unread items for 30 days, and then they’ll roll off the feed. However, it also has some neat bookmarking options (called “boards” and “read later”) which will save things for… well, at least 4 months.

I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from using an RSS reader. It’s given me an organization system for keeping current with both professional and personal information. I feel like I have a measure of control over all those great websites I should be looking at. (The Feedly interface is also pretty clean; each article looks the same so I suspect I can scan them a lot faster than trying to find my way around 80+ different sites.)

So, that’s my pitch. Check out Feedly or another RSS reader and see if it makes the social media world of blogs make more sense for you.

I owe some credit here to Alan Levine, who happens to have just blogged on this very topic and tool (twice actually). Seeing how he structured such a post was very useful as I decided what to address in mine. I think his posts are particularly good if you’re thinking that you might like to work on blogging with students or among a research group.


Gare de triage dans l’est de Montréal (switchyard)” by Claude Robillard; CC-BY on Flickr. Because it’s got tracks. Get it?

Animated GIFs from Big Bang Theory and M*A*S*H* from Giphy.

RSS icon from Wikipedia.

Feedly screencaptures originally taken by Alan Levine or by me.

A few thoughts on blogging

I posted a version of this to the Moodle site, but I thought it was good enough to make public.

From talking to a couple of you, it sounds like there might be a little technostress going on from trying to introduce so many tools at the same time. So first of all… yay! If you’re stressed out from looking at everything at once, then you’re interested and working ahead. That’s good, right?

For this week, the only technology we’re looking at is blogging. (There was some technical stuff here about blogging which I’m leaving on Moodle. It was very “click here”-ish.)

You might be thinking “well, great, Joe, but what do I write”? Our general guidance for this week is “reflect on your readings and/or your visitor-resident map.” Beyond that, it’s a matter of finding your style. I’ll share 3 things that I think are key – one that I think I’m good at, one that I think I’m getting better at, and one which is really hard for me.


Links are how a document knows it’s on the web. I’m borrowing that turn of phrase from Kenyon student Daniel Olivieri. (See what I did there?) So my first piece of advice is to link liberally. Link to the article you’re reflecting on. Link to another piece it reminds you of. Link to an explanation of a disciplinary concept you’re applying. Link to a place where you’ve got a digital presence, or directly to your presence on that platform. Link to someone else’s post on DigPINS that interested you.

Of course, that’s a style choice, and it doesn’t fit every possible kind of blogging you might do. But I do believe that links are the difference between a document that’s really “in the web” and one that’s just published electronically, so I encourage you to think about them.


This is the one I’m trying to get better at. I’m a pretty textual guy and if you look at my blogging, you’ll see a lot of walls of text. But there are lots of ways to leaven your writing with images, from literal illustrations or figures to images which you use to make a point, or enhance a theme, or just make a joke.

Bob Ross at his easel
Let’s add a happy little image right here.

Again, that’s a style choice, and you can use as many or as few images as you like. Without getting into the “click here” or the copyright discussion right now, I’ll say that you can insert images with a button on WordPress which says “Add Media”, and you can either use URLs for images on the web, or upload images to be hosted on our site.

Just hit publish

This is the one I’m just bad at. As you can see from this message, I like to write a lot of things and have them relatively polished before I release them. That’s my style, and I’m OK with it. But the risk of writing small numbers of long posts is that I have a bunch of half-finished blog drafts or ideas instead of an active blog, and that’s kind of a shame. There are a number of more successful bloggers who are more prepared to stop a post abruptly, and then pick up the idea in a new post later on. Remember, you can write a second post, or you can engage us in the comments to flesh out an idea… but only if you hit publish on the first post.

I have more thoughts, but I should take my own advice and just hit publish!


OK, one more thing. I do believe that when you use images from the web, you should cite them. So the picture of Bob Ross is taken from Wikipedia.

Week 0!

Welcome to #DigPINS!

This summer #DigPINS is a five week online professional development course/conversation for faculty and staff designed to introduce and expand how connected digital environments impact pedagogy, identity, networks and scholarship. DigPINS will run from June 18th – July 20th with four weeks of content and a week long break in the middle.

This year will be the first iteration of #DigPINS in partnership! The cohorts at Kenyon and St. Norbert will have our own digital spaces, but we’ll also be in conversation on the open web!

So what’s Week Zero?

Week Zero is a setup week – an opportunity for us to give a little information about the experience and for you to do a couple things to prepare. Nothing is required this week, but it might save you a little time next week.

Our facilitators recently recorded a week 0 video which you can view to get an introduction.

Digital Tools

#DigPINS is not a “click here” kind of training course. You will need a few technical skills to participate, since it’s an online experience, but our goals are more about learning the “grammar” which will transfer from tool to tool, and the critical lens which lets you think about what works for whom, and why.

We also hope #DigPINS is an excuse for you to try things out; if you see an opportunity to push yourself by learning and evaluating a potential new tool, take it! The facilitators are here to help and ideally the community will work together to help one another to empathize and learn together in these areas. (Documenting your thoughts about a new tool, or an old tool used a new way, makes for great blog posts!)

To get ready for the course one of the things that you can do is just make sure that you have access to the following and if you have questions about access to reach out to Joe Murphy:


Most of our work is going to be in the open, but we’ll also have a Moodle page available. Primarily we’ll just use the course forum to serve as a mailing list; it’s a place where you could contribute links or ask questions, or let us know when you’re trying something out on the blog or on Twitter. This will be private to just the Kenyon College participants, though Autumm Caines, the co-facilitator at St. Norbert, will have access as well.

Once the page is ready, you’ll see it when you log in to Moodle.


As part of developing a digital identity you will blog publicly on this site. You are encouraged to post weekly in your blog, promote your blog post on Moodle or Twitter or elsewhere, and read and comment on your colleagues’ posts (including our St. Norbert colleagues over at There are no due dates for blog posts, but do try to post once a week.

Joe will create accounts for each participant and you will receive an email invite.


Before we begin you may want to set up a Twitter account if you do not have one already, however, you may also want to wait till after the week on digital identity if you are unsure. You can sign up at and there are instructions on signing up  at .

Video Calls

We will be using YouTube Live/Google Hangout for our synchronous video calls. Each week we will meet in this way and the call may be recorded for review later in some cases. You will need a good internet connection, a camera and microphone, to be able to participate; this could be a webcam on your computer or a smartphone/tablet. If you feel like you need a test call to check your connection, camera, mic, etc just contact Joe.


Hypothesis is a social annotation tool for the web and digital documents. You will need an account and a browser plugin is optional. This tool allows us (in week 3) to collectively mark up a text that we are all reading in-line with comments, questions, and even video and images.


This is a very broad plan and as each week starts, we’ll release materials, readings and more solid schedule of activities will be released.


We all contain multitudes; you have different identities depending on context. When and where do you identify as a scholar, teacher, professional, member of a community, or member of your family? During this week we will explore digital identity through some readings, your blog post, a synchronous introduction call, and an exercise called “Visitor and Resident (V&R) Mapping.”


No man (or woman) is an island; we all participate in networks everyday through work, friends, and/or family. How do we create and maintain strong connections when the environment is digital? This week we will start exploring how we make those networks real and public; there will likely be a video call, twitter chat, or other sync activity. Blog posts and comments too.


Enjoy your holiday; catch up if you got behind.


This week we begin to think about how online identities and networks can come into play as we are working with students. What are the benefits and drawbacks to working with students in the open? What digital tools could help students to think about subjects from new perspectives. Again, we will have a set of readings, blog posts, and a sync video call perhaps with a special guest.


How are scholarship practices changing with the digital?  Who reads our scholarly work? How much of our scholarly work is understandable to those outside of our disciplines? We will be pulling from what we learned in networks to reflect on our scholarly practices through readings, blog posts, and a sync activity/call.

So here we are, getting ready to go! We’re looking forward to reflecting on these issues with you!

The picture “First Day: calendar” by Eric Rice is used under its Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND) from

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.