McLuhan, the Medium, the Containers, and Libraries

Before diving in, a bit on where I’m coming from: One of my majors was Communication, and McLuhan was a major topic in several of my classes. Though I don’t find his writing as readable as some others, his ideas resonate with me. A personal area of interest for me is the field of Science, Technology, and Society, which studies how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific and technology innovation and are affected by it. Finally, I became a librarian for a number of reasons, one of which was an activist mindset of preserving this type of cultural institution. Okay, with that squared away:

I, like Claire, often find myself in the position of saying something to the effect of technology is value neutral, it’s how you use it that matters, so I questioned my “True North” described above when I was reminded that’s not a particularly McLuhanist approach to technology. Upon reflection, though, I think I have mostly used that phrase to open the door to conversations about how the technology might be useful in order to backtrack to how to ensure good general practice (in teaching, in productivity, in research, etc) with or without the technology in question. I plan to reflect more on after our seminar this evening.

This reading came at a particularly good point in time for me. Earlier this week I attended Tony’s session on giving effective powerpoint presentations. It was a fun session, as I really like making slide decks and learning tricks and tips to do it even more effectively. In that session we briefly touched on McLuhan, and Tony pointed out that PowerPoint, itself, encourages you to behave in a certain way.
As does an iPhone, access to a tablet computer, a laptop, an offline desktop. And knowledge that your screen at the office is huge compared to the phone sized one in your pocket.

I, of course, think of this in the context of libraries shifting. (And oh, the library readers of this blog know the many ways that the field is shifting and changing, but for the VT Seminar crowd, I could go on for days.) I am excited by that work, and the redefining, and the challenge of not just ensuring libraries remain relevant but are critical to the success of the enterprise. But I digress…

One of those shifts is the move from a focus on container (i.e. The Book) to the content (i.e. The Information). But I have long thought, perhaps due to my other major in Philosophy–which is particularly paper bound, that the container does change how one thinks about and uses the information. That we as a field should think about what that means and be very intentional about our work. And you see evidence of that in most academic libraries. Largely, when books are moved off site and online collections are purchased to replace them, that (in the most general view) is generally focused on STEM fields, leaving humanities and some social sciences with much of their physical collections in the building. I suspect the container at that point changes the work to some degree for STEM research, but perhaps in a more positive direction. In those, the more flexible online, hyperlinked, fast container might be more useful.

In parallel, I think a lot about how new forms of scholarship like those enabled by big data or digital humanities practices might change what can be known. How they in fact change the questions that can be asked.

All of which is very exciting to me. The biggest worry, from my perspective, is what happens if this overshadows the types of questions that could be asked previously, or does it imply a value hierarchy that isn’t necessarily intentional.

Looking forward to this afternoon’s seminar….

Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and the Potential of Computers

When reading Kay and Goldberg’s Personal Dynamic Media I found myself, again, surprised by how much they got right. This time it was less of a surprise, as it was written nearer today’s time and they helped create the technology we know, but I was still struck with a sense of “wow, they got it!”

Alan Kay and the prototype of Dynabook, pt. 5Most of the piece was focused on things the Dynabook could do, which was certainly cool to read, but I found I had less of a response. Instead of “let me point out how this is like today’s tools” I kept thinking “yes, that’s obviously there.”

And then I came to the passage that struck a conversational chord:

“For educators, the Dynabook could be a new world limited only by their imagination and ingenuity. They could use it to show complex historical inter-relationships in ways not possible with static linear books. Mathematics could become a living language in which children could cause exciting things to happen. Laboratory experiments and simulations too expensive or difficult to prepare could easily be demonstrated. The production of stylish pose and poetry could be greatly aided by being able to easily edit and file one’s own compositions.” -p403

And there it is. Throughout the article Kay and Goldberg point out that learning could be made to feel more real, that instead of doing arbitrary assignments and making things for fabricated audiences, a “Dynabook” could enable learning situated in real life contexts. That text didn’t necessarily need to be linear in an electronic format. That tools for learning didn’t need to feel like toys.

And when I think of the technology influenced classes I’ve worked with, I see the manifestation of Kay and Goldberg’s work. Here are some examples:

Public Writing

More often than not, when I’ve taught, I’ve had a blogging component. Sometimes it’s to create opportunities for reflection. Sometimes it’s for metacognitive purposes. Sometimes it’s to give students a “hook” to real world situations to make the in class content more meaningful. In all of these cases the students have an audience way bigger than me, and sometimes bigger than their classmates. The quality of writing and thought was, in many cases, measurably improved.

Building an encyclopedia

I’ve done this in my own class, but also worked with a sociology professor on a similar project. In these cases, using Mediawiki (the same software that runs Wikipedia), the students created encyclopedia entries on the topic of the class. In the simplest implementations students make a new one each semester. In more complex (but more interesting and more scaffolded) examples, one class has a wiki on the topic, but each section and each semester builds on the previous students’ work.

Making a magazine

Working with a foreign language teacher, students created a magazine in WordPress, with a magazine like theme and a few language customizations, for the public to read. The target audience was high school students interested in the language, as a tool to help them learn, and opportunity to leave comments in the language, and a recruiting tool to the college program. The faculty member also had colleagues who natively spoke the language leave comments as well, raising the bar on the quality of work students posted.

Making a (physical!) book

These technology enhanced pedagogical techniques aren’t always about the web, though. One class I worked with was doing a project on the history of the university. In this case they used university archives to find content, conducted oral histories, then put all the content together to make physical books. This project couldn’t have been done without the technology available at the time, but it wasn’t a technology project. My favorite part of the work is that the book is now in university archives for people to reference in the future.

Recording Podcasts

A number of faculty I worked with were interested in student created podcasts. Some of this was, in no doubt, due to iTunesU. Some of this was due to a knowledge that students worked with text in a lot of classes, images/powerpoint in a fair number, and even video in some rarer cases. Audio seemed like a useful auxiliary skill to offer, and in terms of the content included, has a lot in common with the “gold standard” of a term paper. Interestingly, in recording the podcasts, many students noted that they thought about the content differently when explaining it verses writing about it, and spent more time on the final product as they didn’t have a template in mind when they started as they often did with papers.

Making Movies

As alluded to before, movies were popping up at the point in which I was doing this work. In some cases students would be asked to make videos in lieu of writing a paper. In my own class I spent a few semesters offering a video as an alternative to a paper (with modified expectations) and in one I required it. Uniformly students said it was more work, but several students said they were thankful for the opportunity to learn a new skill. Several also indicated they had to think more about how to display the information in a video, which caused them to remember it better than they might have otherwise.

Interacting on a Collaborative Platform

The culmination of all this work, for me, was teaching Wake’s first online undergraduate course. I used Google Sites in lieu of the course management system, Google Docs for course documents and assignments, I made extensive use of YouTube to introduce content and to have students report their progress back to me, used Google Forms for formative assessment throughout the course, and generally plugged in any type of media I could from images to slide decks to screencasts. I constructed this course in the way that I did to meet the learning objectives of the course as well as the instructional culture of the institution. Students reported it felt like more work, but that they (largely) really liked the format. I felt like I got to know the students better as people as well as had a better grasp of how well they knew the content. Win win.

In all of these cases, when I worked with other faculty on these projects, the idea came from the individual faculty member. I just helped them find the right tools to meet their goals, worked with them on what it would look like in the class and for the students, and remained engaged in case they needed support as the semester went on. In all of these the class engagement was high and the outputs were interesting and sometimes surpassed our expectations. And none of this could have been done without the tools Kay and Goldberg envisioned over thirty years ago.

As an aside, if you’re at Virginia Tech and want to work on a project like one of the above, or even something that makes use of newer tools and technologies (like twitter, infographics, location based services, etc) I’d love to talk with you!

Library Learning Goes Online: American Libraries Live Episode

Today I had the great pleasure to participate in an American Libraries Live episode on Library Learning Goes Online. Dan Freeman, Online Learning Manager for ALA Publishing, organized and pulled together the session, Sarah Steiner moderated, and John Shank and I were on the panel. As someone with an interest in online learning, I have to say, I really like the format. It’s easier to have a conversation via Google Hangouts than most standard web conferencing packages, and though we participants didn’t get a chance to participate in real time, there was an ongoing chat, hashtag on twitter, and facebook conversation related to the session.

The conversation was wide ranging, but here are some of the things that I noted to be sure to cover in the conversation:

When we talk about online instruction today, what are we talking about?

Instruction covers a broad spectrum of issues: training, library instruction/one-shots, workshops, courses (either those we teach or those we support), and MOOCs. As John pointed out in the session, even meetings can fall into the domain of online learning.

There are three main models of instruction:

  1. Synchronous, which instruction conducted in which participants engage at the same time, is conducted using web conferencing software like WebEx, or Adobe Connect, or even Google Hangout. 
  2. Asynchronous, which is instruction conducted in such a way that participants do not have to login or participate at a specific time. Learning Management Systems, blogs or wikis, or any interactive website can enable these learning environments.
  3. And, finally, hybrid or blended, environments which combine the two.

And finally, when talking about online instruction today, I think you also have to talk about the methods of online learning, which I’m not sure I had time to bring up today, which I was thinking of in terms of the learning theory and/or pedagogies to support good learning, the technology tools you use to create the learning environment, and the literacies your audience has (for example, how much do they know about how to use the various tools you plan to use in your instruction).

What are the similarities and differences between in person and online learning? How might they work together?

Fundamentally, I believe in person instruction and online instruction are more similar than different. Both are about attaining learning outcomes. In both you want to get the attention of your students. Both are about the people in your class and being really good at communication.

That being said, the main difference from my view is that in an online environment you have a lot more variables to consider when designing instruction than you do in a traditional face-to-face environment. And the decisions you have to make depend on your knowledge of tools that are ever-changing as well as other variables such as whether you need to design instruction for a synchronous environment.

But most interestingly to me is that online instruction can inform face-to-face instruction. Designing online instruction takes intention in a way that face-to-face doesn’t always require. With more variables and more tools, you have to think more carefully about what you’re doing and why. This reflection and intention can transfer back to traditional teaching. Further, gaining familiarity with online tools can provide tools that can be useful in hybrid settings or even as supplementary activities in face-to-face environments. And finally, if you create content for online instruction, you now have content that you can reuse in other ways: in tutorials, in virtual chat sessions for reference, in flipped classrooms, etc.

What are the opportunities and costs associated with online learning?

Some of the most often discussed opportunities are around issues like the ability to fit courses into difficult schedules, freeing up classroom space, reaching students you might not be able to reach otherwise, and sometimes that online learning can be a more authentic learning experience for some courses (for example, a class about online learning should probably be taught online).

Specifically, what’s gained and lost depends on the structure and purpose of the course. For example: if the course is designed to maximize the number of students, you lose the personal connection. If you design online instruction to maintain or improve personal connections, you cannot scale to massive numbers. To know what’s gained or lost, you have to think about what you’re designing and why. And, in the end, you should be able to design something that that is better for what you’re trying to do, and what you lose in the tradeoff should hopefully be something that wasn’t critical to your instruction in the first place.

How do you keep students engaged online?

I really do feel that it’s the same as in face-to-face instruction:

  1. Make the content interesting and useful
  2. Provide opportunities for interaction: with you, with classmates, and/or with the content itself
  3. Tie the instruction to a real world need: whether it’s a graded assignment, a need the community has, etc.

As John pointed out, thinking carefully as you plan activities, such as chat, polling, etc, allows you to engage people with content as you work through it. And providing those activities to students allow them to actually do something rather than just hear it.

What are good assessment strategies?

It’s pretty clear that in the field, we often use “assessment” to mean a wide umbrella of things, most of which falls into one of these categories:

  1. Evaluating affective aspects of the class
  2. (Formative) assessment to test how the instruction is going to allow you to pivot or shift instructional strategies if the audience needs it
  3. Assessing whether the class’s designated learning outcomes have been met

You’d do this in any class–hopefully–but in an online class it will often look different. For example, talking to a room full of people, you can see when people get bored or when they look engaged. That’s formative assessment data that tells you whether you need to speak more casually, do more demos, or keep up the good work you’re doing. In most cases, you don’t have that same head-nodding feedback online, so you have to create opportunities to get that feedback as part of your instruction.

And, as John so correctly pointed out, you can easily design the instruction to include feedback in any activity you have students do, and in that case you are able to assess any time students are actively participating (whether polling, working in small groups, doing an assignment, etc.).

One of the questions raised was about assessing behavioral changes vs. learning skills. That’s hard whether it’s in person or not. And like in person, if you have a really good relationship with the faculty member, in a college setting at least, you might be able to see final projects or get some indication through that lens. I always hype the friendly librarian and how to get in touch, and then focus on transferable skills. I’m more interested in can an undergraduate student think through choosing a good topic and generally evaluating resources rather than which of our proprietary databases to use and how to make use of advanced searching within it. The more transferable skills will be used again and again by the student, giving them opportunities to reinforce the lesson, and is a technique that is grounded in brain-based learning.

Thoughts for the future

In the immediate future, I’m following: MOOCs and Open Educational Resources, as well as the related competency based education discussions. Though not new news, I pay a lot of attention to Personal Learning Networks as another piece of the “informal” learning environment.

In the longer term, I’m thinking about learner analytics. The systems we use for instruction, in many cases Learning Management Systems, can provide amazing data to let us know how learners are interacting with content, how long they’re staying on the site, and who isn’t engaged at all. That data is powerful, both in terms of helping the instructor know what’s really going on in the classroom as well as as another data point in designing the next go round of instruction. However, I’m watching with a tentative eye, because I worry a bit about the potential dystopian future  that it points to, removing some of the humanity from education and possibly the creativity of both the students and the teachers.

One more thing

After the talk, a colleague asked for a few Instructional Design related book recommendations, so here are some I particularly like:

I had a great time in the conversation, and really appreciated reading the twitter conversations later. Thanks to Dan for inviting me, Sarah for the excellent moderation, John for the great conversation, and the American Libraries Live crew for the opportunity to participate in the event!